A few days ago I was putzing around doing some random link-jumping and came across BookDaddy, a blog written by former Dallas Morning News critic Jerome Weeks. He’s a fiendishly clever writer who can review a book and tie that review into a piece of history, or a personal memory, or five other wonderful books that you’ve never heard of, and the whole thing comes across as something more than just a book review. Reading him, I get a sense of voice that I one day hope to achieve.
Going though his archives, I came across a mention of Hiding the Elephant by Jim Steinmeyer, a book about the history of the golden age of stage magic. Having recently come out of the Carter Beats the Devil/Kavalier & Klay jag and having always been fascinated by American myth, this sort of thing was right in my wheelhouse.
Steinmeyer is a magician himself. He knows that even though people like me want to know how a magic trick is done, a dry, clinical explanation will suck all the magic out of it and make it into a mechanical con. Stage magic isn’t a con, it is Art. Steinmeyer treats these magicians with respect and reverence, interlacing biographical facts with hints of the large- than-life myth that they cloaked themselves with to make their fame and to sell tickets. He doesn’t psychoanalyze or get into his subjects’ heads much, with the notable exception of Houdini, but that’s because Houdini’s giant-sized Oedipal issues pretty much beg for it. But you can read all that in the book.
He treats Hiding as a historical narrative from the first modern technical illusion – John Henry Pepper and Henry Dierks reflecting an actor’s image on a pane of glass on stage in 1862, making the first believable illusion of a ghost – leading up to Houdini making a full-sized elephant disappear on stage in New York. Steinmeyer masterfully takes us through the innovators and the personalities, never spending too much time on any one magician before he stuffs him back into the hat and goes on to the next act. He reveals secrets but always stresses how much time and effort went into creating original tricks and how valuable they were, with manic arms races springing up over all the major illusions, with magicians stealing and double-dealing and scooping each other. It’s all great fun.
Hiding the Elephant is one of those wonderful microhistories that doesn’t feel like you’re reading a history at all. And as we know, that’s a magic trick all its own.
(Oh, and incidentally – Steinmeyer does tell us how Houdini hid that elephant. You’ll just have to read it to find out how.)